(This post was not updated after autumn 2014, except points a) and b) here in italic: most challenges remain valid.)
a) point added mid 2015:
Point 7 on the brand could be updated: Politico took over European Voice, had the brand vanish right away, and most of the EV editorial team left.
In the meantime, the Columbia Journalism Review wrote the piece ‘Can Politico rise again’, addressing some of these issues. It quotes my blog, and mentions only two European media: the FT and EurActiv
b) point added in February 2016. Politico pre-announced the departure of most of its Washington top management after the US elections. This continues a tradition of high staff turn-over. Several specialised publications speculated , as well as larger ones, about the impact on its strategy, including abroad. I do not know the view of J.V. partner …)
Axel Springer (‘Bild’ and others, beyond Germany), and Politico (chiefly Washington, also NY) will jointly launch a media, covering Europe, probably branching out of Brussels.
This was reported in the NYTimes this week, then commented in the Columbia Journalism Review: “You would need a strong profile and be able to show readers what they would get that they’re not already getting from national media, the Financial Times, and EurActiv,” says Claes de Vreese, professor a of political communication at the University of Amsterdam’.
In three other posts, here is some background:
- #Media4EU 2/4 | 0f 20 media groups to ‘go European’: most failed, not all
- #Media4EU 3/4 | EU media policy, hopes? Sustained media independence?
- #Media4EU 4/4 | Why share media challenges? Learning from each other…
This new attempt is by two large companies with a lot of money and with professional teams. A difference with some, but not all, previous attempts. And an asset but potentially also a curse, depending on answering 10 key questions.
STRATEGY QUESTIONS FOR ANY ‘EUROPEAN MEDIA’
1. Is EU policy becoming European politics? yes, but slowly
Is the EU failing? Not quite, otherwise, why bother?
Investing in a new European media is a sign of confidence in European integration, however one sees the EU’s actual workings. Could one become a ‘media of reference’ to a (would be) EU government without sharing its core values?
Brussels is changing, becoming more open to hard political debates, but slowly. I recall when the press corps opposed usage of English, then slowed down accreditation of online media, then later criticized the broadcasting of the daily ‘point de presse’.
The EU does not yet have a real media strategy, but there is possible progress.
2. Support to and from the EU or not? balance? independence? value added?
Both media making announcements are seen as right-wing and hard hitting. Springer with its tabloïd ‘Bild’ (and conservative ‘Die Welt’), and Politico against the Democrat-leaning Washington Post. Will the new venture be euro-sceptic, or at least euro-critical? Nothing wrong with that in principle, but what will be the style of their joint venture: also hard-hitting and opinionated?
The EU system is coalition-based and stakeholder-oriented, not left versus right. Debates are more NGOs versus industry, or North versus South and Brussels versus countries (or topic-related, eg Russophiles vs Russophobes, etc.). Will the new venture stand somewhere, or aim for balance? That would be a new development for them?
The list of ‘European media’ is not as small as it appears. They each cover an angle or a niche (or several in the case of EurActiv’s network from 12 capitals). Don’t throw the baby with the bath water: they have faithful readers, and indirect impact in the national press, therefore public opinions. To take old ones, 10 years ago, I didn’t believe that Agence Europe and Europolitique would both survive the internet age that long.
One dilemma for newcomers is: how to fit with the EU – not partisan hard-hitting, while adding value versus existing players, still being different?
3. Specialised or broad? Paying by few or free for many?
Most media are in one category or the other. The joint venture partners come from two different sides on this. Some try to be both, which risks disappointing both target audiences. Should one choose or not?
This is also related to the next issue.
4. Which languages? Reach out to many or serve only the smallest denominator? Deliver?
The ranking of media best read by MEPs is related to the quality of the content, and also chiefly to languages available: yes, the leader is multilingual, guess who?. Focusing on English only, or even adding just German and French, may make short term business sense, like cherry picking. But it leaves aside the mother tongues of most EU politicians and most public spheres. English may be the main language of the Brussels’ bubble, but it is not the main language of the real leadership in Europe, and at best read by a minority of Europe’s political class.
Lip service to languages is frequent, but pre-announcing diversity is not enough. An English print media welcomed Letters to the Editor in any language, but I have yet to see one in French or German… Two other specialized media quietly dropped German and Italian. Another online media venture launched in English and French, then dropped French, then shrank. There is no easy answer to the language choice, and there are even more challenges in actually implementing it.
Indeed, running several different monolingual publications is not the same as running one multilingual media.
DG Translation asked me for a keynote at their upcoming Translating Europe Forum for the EU translator community next week, leveraging EurActiv’s example (if that is one). Here are the exhibits to that presentation.
So, assuming the new venture aims for several languages: Which ones? When? Through localisation or translation? Brussels or capitals’ editorial decisions? decentralised or centralised translations?
5. Revenue model: key issue, several solutions
Recalling public statements by Springer’s CEO (see interview around his EBP Award) and the current business model of Politico, one way to go may be freemium. Some free content to build readership, plus paid subscription for more.
But what proportion of politicians and stakeholders actually take several media subscriptions?
Subscription allegedly reduces dependence from advertisers or public contracts or sponsors (if they would be be US PR-style ‘native advertising’, ie ‘sponsored articles’. Unlike transparent, general support for broader coverage, practiced for EurActiv’s policy sections). In fact, large subscriptions may lead to ‘customised content’ and more: in effect, paid-for questions at press conferences…
Even capturing part of that subscription market, would it be enough? What is the size of the EU political communication market compared to the Washington one? How long does it take to win subscription contracts with EU institutions (and solve soul searching about media independence)? to build newsletter databases?
A related issue is the nationality of ‘big ticket’ sales targets.
Naturally, any media coming to town tries to bring along its home clients: Germans would entice German lobbies, Americans approach US corporates, etc. However, what is the name of the game in EU politics? It is to reach beyond your own circles, to build coalitions across borders and be a platform for different stakeholders. That is why American clients like continental products.
This question also goes back to the identity of the brand and the team, and brings us also to the often unspoken issue of culture (more below)
CHALLENGES SPECIFIC TO THE POLITICO-SPRINGER JOINT VENTURE
6. 50/50 J.V. and €€ $$ : Curse? Leadership? Which culture?
My knowledge of this agreement is too limited to put pointed questions. Since ‘large’ amounts of money are announced, interesting questions – based on the past – could be:
- ‘above 10 million €’: is it really large? A lot more money already flowed through the accounts of existing media like EurActiv (adding equity capital and commercial revenues over time), building the current brand, partnerships and readership in 12 languages. Some EU-funded ‘media projects’ received even more money, and failed.
- Is the money meant as a profitable investment or to pay expenses for a long time, as many attempts did?
- How long are the joint ventures partners ready to cover losses until they adapt their strategy? Who will decide?
7. Brand, make or buy: Politico? New brand? Acquire?
Organic growth from existing websites is possible online but potentially confusing. Would Brussels stakeholders want search results mingled with Washington gossip? Starting from scratch is slower and much more expensive. On the other hand, acquisitions can be difficult to digest if all sides are not used to it. So, which model can the new joint venture follow: organic growth? fresh start? capitalize on an existing venture? or a bit of everything?
Axel Springer probably works well with US media concepts, but Politico is new to international issues, and, to my knowledge, they have not cooperated before. This is not the first US-German attempt to ‘go European’, by companies with more international experience . Brussels acceptance may also be an issue, as it was with other country-based attempts, notably British and French ones (see the next blog post).
8. Timing of launch
Politico benefited hugely from starting just before the 2008 US elections, which boosted its readership and revenues. This put pressure on the incumbent Washington Post. WaPo is now hitting back on Politico’s hinterland, with investments from Amazon’s Bezos and a new publisher… co-founder of Politico.
In Europe, elections are just behind us, the new EU leadership team is made up and the main policy priorities have been set. Soon, we will be back to legislative policy-making.
An angle ‘be part of the new mandate’ would make sense, but time is short. Others are also preparing new tools for 2014-2019, for example around “InterActiv Europe”.
Another logical launch topic would be TTIP, of course. But this is too narrow and still tentative. (Years ago, EurActiv started from scratch with enlargement, leading to policy coverage leadership, sustained physical presence in 6 Central European capitals and great goodwill from many ‘new’ officials and ‘Eastern’ politicians).
So, the question is: when and on what topic(s) will the new venture make its mark?
DOES THE MARRIAGE OF 2 BIG PLAYERS MAKE A GOOD EUROPEAN TEAM?
9. Germany + US: adding two dominances makes Europe?
California-based social media and search engines currently dominate the internet. This situation triggers increasing citizen and political resistance in Europe. Even in core countries that are normally open to ‘foreign’ influences.
The Anglo-Saxon press is respected more than it is liked.
Germans’ influence is still perceived as positive for the EU, but they themselves start fearing their own weight.
Will the new venture be perceived as enhancing the domination of these two countries?
It will of course claim to be adapted to Brussels and multicultural. But will it be perceived as ‘truly European’?
10. Finally, little cultural stories…
A now retired publisher involved in two failed attempts told me: ‘We had major cultural problems. I will never work again with people from these countries’. Are we past that stage of prejudices? Not so sure.
I can imagine these four characters (now fictional) speaking end of 2015:
Ein Chefredakteur aus Berlin: ‚Mensch, was soll das mit den Amis… wir wollen knallhart berichten, viele Leser erreichen, kein Euro-Kleinkram über Absatz 35!
An anglo-saxon Marketing Director: ‘Gosh, these dominant Germans… Hey, do they ‘get’ the subtle public affairs? If we are feared, can we sustain goodwill subscriptions? ‘
Un eurocrate français: ‘S’ils nous attaquent constamment, pourquoi leur faciliter la vie et distribuer leur contenu à nos fonctionnaires? Et pourquoi écouter les lobbyistes qui les financent?’
A Polish MEP: ‘tylko w języku polskim prosimy’
All these challenges might be solved, perhaps, maybe. It’s a courageous venture, even with lots of money to spend. Welcome and good luck!